The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) victory has returned Arvind Kejriwal as Chief Minister of the city-state of Delhi for the third time. Every exit poll, including Jan Ki Baat on Republic Media Network, had predicted Tuesday’s result giving a broad sweep to AAP. It is going to be a dream third term for Kejriwal who rose from the dust of the Anna Hazare movement in 2013, evolving a brand of grassroots politics that centers around a mass leader and populism.
Does that ring a bell? Has it worked with other leaders in the recent past with equal success? Yes, there are many such examples in the states. Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, late J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu or Naveen Patnaik in Odisha are all leaders who combined personal charisma with a heavy dose of state welfarism to remain unbeatable by opponents in their respective territories. But none has perfected and scaled up the formula on to the national stage as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He did that in Gujarat to become the longest-serving chief minister of the state before coming to Delhi, riding a wave that was for him much more than for his party.
There is an uncanny resemblance in the manner in which Kejriwal has shorted the BJP in this election using its own rule book. Let’s see how. To begin with, post his 2015 win, Kejriwal firmed the grip over AAP and fashioned the party in his own mind, easing out all equals from Prashant Bhushan to Yogendra Yadav to Kumar Vishwas among others. This gave him some delusions of grandeur, for, I saw a hoarding in Goa in 2016 that said AAP was coming to power in the state on its own - repeating the same in Punjab, Rajasthan, and most recently in Haryana.
The results of general elections last year clearly showed he had bitten more than he could chew. Kejriwal's AAP stood third in his own den of Delhi, accounting for a mere 18% votes, even losing deposits in two seats. Just under a year before today's win, Kejriwal had hit a nadir. But then began perhaps most nimble-footed turnaround in recent Indian political history. The Delhi CM took all possible lessons in one single capsule provided by the second Modi wave. Gone were the rent-a-quote attacks on the Centre. Targeting the Prime Minister vanished completely. PM Modi became his Prime Minister too. The entire focus came on winning Delhi again.
He first solidified the core AAP support base of urban poor with freebies beginning with the cheap power and water bills. As a build-up to the election, Kejriwal went on announcing and implementing measures like the free metro rides for women, free bus travel, marshals for women's security in transit, a CCTV network for secure neighbourhoods, free wi-fi, model schools and healthcare, promising to make Delhi almost a Scandinavian welfare state. It is debatable whether he implemented half or less of it. It is likely that central grants played some role. But the idea struck a chord with the masses. BJP made some counteroffers and the Congress party even promised a cashback. But Kejriwal was quick to claim copyright with a first-mover advantage, and an aggressive advertising campaign at government expense, before the Model Code of Conduct kicked in.
Parallelly, Kejriwal began the project to poach on BJP's middle-class right-wing voter by openly flirting with the Hindu sentiment in his politics. See for yourself the spike in ads that publicized his Hindu pilgrimage scheme for the elderly, his snubbing of a Pakistani minister, backing the Modi government on Pulwama and Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370, welcoming the Ayodhya verdict, completely skirting Shaheen Bagh (even as his accomplice Amanatullah Khan choreographed it behind the scenes), singing Hanuman Chalisa on national TV, following it up with an election-eve visit to the Connaught Place Hanuman temple. Thanking Lord Hanuman in his victory speech was not just meant to rub it into the BJP. It had worked.
Clearly, despite his (limited) celebrity, a Manoj Tiwari was no match to this well thought and played out work of political reinvention. Amit Shah's encore in the last fortnight of the campaign has paid the BJP handsomely by shoring up its vote bank beyond its core of 30% in Delhi. With a moribund Congress, using anti-CAA protests to divide non-BJP votes between the grand old party and AAP failed miserably. It speaks something of the Congress that it had to pull out the memories of Sheila Dikshit from the dead in its campaign, with the result that almost the entire centrist vote went to Kejriwal.
As trends emerged and cadres burst into victory celebrations at the AAP headquarters near ITO earlier in the day, a poster emerged on the walls asking for missed calls from those who wanted to join AAP for nation-building. Having emerged a winner, would Tuesday’s victory again fuel national ambition in the AAP supremo? Keep watching.